While I generally avoid talking about the physiological basis for BDSM in this blog, an article on tickling in Slate.com got me thinking.
Tickling is an odd thing. It causes the recipient to lose control and perform involuntary reactions like laughing and squirming away, yet the experience is pleasurable. Also, it appears to be impossible for people to tickle themselves.
However, tickling seems to require that the tickler and the ticklee know each other. When truly unwelcome, the contact is no longer tickling.
This is highlighted by the case that brought this issue to prominence: US Representative Eric Massa’s alleged harassment of junior male aides by tickling. How much of an invasion of personal space is tickling? How sexual is it? Is this an unpleasant social gaffe or a sexual assault, particularly when it is in a hierarchical relationship such as that between Massa and his aides.
Adolescent chimpanzees laugh frequently during rambunctious play, leading some to believe that tickling may have been the original primate dominance game—making a tickle fight between a congressman and his poorly paid underlings particularly apt. Laughter reassured the participants that the game would not proceed to violence. In fact, ape tickling more often leads to sex.
That brings us back to Eric Massa and Larry King. Can two adults tickle just for the fun of it, or is there something inherently sexual about tickling? Here, the nonhuman apes provide a mixed answer. While tickling juveniles sometimes proceed to have sex, it’s hardly the rule. According to Marina Davila-Ross, the University of Portsmouth researcher with the temerity to tickle apes, adult orangutans seek out tickling from their human caretakers in zoos, approaching and exposing the soles of their feet or the napes of their necks. They can’t possibly be expecting a roll in the hay to ensue.
(Or can they?)
Naturally, there are plenty of tickling fetish sites out there, but it isn’t clear whether tickling always leads to arousal for either party in the act.
While it seems like the worst tickling can do to a person physically is cause brief fainting, there’s a number of legends and folktales about tickling as torture or even execution.
Nevertheless, Robert Provine notes that history and mythology tell tales of death by tickle. The Leshii, a Russian fairy-tale monster, abducted peasants and tickled them to death. The Rusalka, drowned maidens of Ukrainian lore who populate inland waterways, tempted bypassing bachelors and delivered fatal tickle attacks. Real-life Prince Vlad—yes, that Vlad—of Transylvania may have tortured victims by dripping salty water onto their feet and letting goats lick it off. English rebel Simon de Montfort reportedly tickled opponents to death with a feather, and an Anabaptist sect uncomfortable with bloodshed is also alleged to have used the method.
I’ve heard that tickling is the one BDSM act everyone has topped or bottomed to, a brief, harmless and pleasurable transgression of personal boundaries.